Isobel moved down the hall, her eyes filled with tears as she knocked lightly at the open door of Charles’ room. This had been the common recurrence since they’d brought Elsie to Crawley House over a week ago.
“I’m coming.” Charles murmured as he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, sliding his feet into his slippers. He had taken to sleeping on top of the bedding, just the throw at the end of the bed pulled over him, and wearing his robe.
Isobel sighed, “I tried. I thought that she would understand by now.”
Charles patted Isobel’s arm as he passed by her. “She’s spent three years sleeping in a corner on the floor, one week isn’t going to be enough, Mrs. Crawley.”
“Won’t you at least call me Isobel when it’s just us? There’s no need to be so formal after all we’ve been through this last week.”
Charles sighed, “I’ll try,” just before disappearing into Elsie’s room.
Isobel watched as Charles sat down beside Elsie, his back resting against the wardrobe, his hand reaching out to caress her mussed hair. She could hear him whispering the same things he always did to reassure the frightened woman shivering under the duvets. Not able to take it any longer, she slipped quietly down the hall to her own room, her arms wrapping around the man she found waiting for her.
“Shh, Lass.” Richard whispered as he held Isobel close and rocked her gently back and forth. He’d stayed away until tonight, not wanting to cause any trouble for Isobel with Charles, although he knew they could simply tell the man the truth. “I shouldn’t have stayed away. You’ve needed me to be here to help you.”
Safe in his arms, Isobel finally let herself cry out all of the pain for her friend that she’d been holding in. “She’s lost, Richard. No matter how much we reassure her, it never changes. She wakes in the night and struggles out of the bed and into the corner.”
“Then I’ll bring a mattress from one of the unused cots at the hospital and you can put it under her pallet to make it more comfortable.”
“I want her to feel safe sleeping in a proper bed.”
“She will, Lass, but it’s going to take a while. We’ve no idea of all of the horrid things the man she’s married to has done to her.”
“He broke her.” Isobel whispered.
Gathering Isobel up into his arms, Richard carried her to the bed and sat down, cradling her in his lap. “Yes, Lass, I believe he did. I also believe Charles Carson will put her back together.”
Kissing the underside of Richard’s jaw, Isobel snuggled closer. “He calls her, my Elsie. I don’t think he realizes it. I think he’s broken, too. He’s talked about some of what he saw, of what he learned.”
Richard listened as Isobel told him all of the things Charles had told her and felt himself growing ill with the hell Elsie had lived the last three years. “Why did she marry the man?”
“Her sister sent her off to be married to save the family name from being disgraced again.”
“Again?” Richard questioned. “Surely you don’t mean Elsie Hughes disgraced her family name?”
“Apparently she was promised to a neighbor family’s son. She turned him down and left to go into service.”
“And that disgraced the family so much so that the sister did this?” Richard nearly spat the words. “What kind of woman is Elsie’s sister?”
“Not one I want to meet. I’m afraid of what I would do.” Isobel hissed.
“I agree. I’ve never wanted to hit a woman before now.”
“I’m tired of hiding the truth.”
Titling her face up, Richard held her gaze. “Are you sure, Lass?”
Isobel nodded. “I need you here. I need to be your wife in public not just in private. Seeing what happened to Elsie,” she shook her head. “I’ve been wrong to worry.”
“Not wrong, Lass.” Richard smiled tenderly as he caressed her face. “I’ll do whatever you want to do.”
“I want us to tell the truth,” she whispered as she pulled the chain from around her neck. “No more hiding this.”
Slipping the ring back onto her left ring finger, Richard kissed it then lifted his mouth to hers. “I love you, Isobel Clarkson. No matter what lies ahead for our friends, we’ll be there for them together.”
Charles spoke as softly as he could while telling Elsie stories of his youth, his hand gently covering the small hand fisted in the hem of his dressing gown. “Old John let me ride the pony he had for his girls from time to time when he would ask me to do an errand for him in the village. Ma wasn’t keen on it, but Pa told her it was good for me to be able to ride and learn about horses. And I loved them. Still do, though I didn’t have much chance of riding or being near the horses when I was butler.” He smiled when he thought of one of the few times he’d had anything to do with the horses after assuming his role as butler.
“I remember how very frightened Lady Sybil was her first time riding. Diamond was a very gentle pony, very calm and easy with children, but she was still bigger than the young lady and she was frightened. Everyone was scolding her, hissing at her that she had to learn to ride as it was expected of her. She looked up at me with those big eyes, large tears rolling down her cheeks, and when she came and clung to my pant legs – I was lost.” He chuckled in sad memory. “I know, you would smirk at me being sentimental, but she was so little, and what was I supposed to do? The tiny bit of stuff was clinging to my legs, begging me to help. I bent down and wiped her eyes with my handkerchief then lifted her up and told her I would help her. Lady Mary was cross, Lady Edith simply rolled her eyes, and Lord Grantham scowled. He wasn’t happy that his child had run to me instead of him. I could have told him that she wanted nothing to do with anyone that had been scolding her and that’s why it was I that she ran to, but I merely kept my promise and took her over to the horse and held her hand and helped her gently pet Diamond to show her she had nothing to fear.”
Elsie turned her hand under Charles’ and gave it a light squeeze. She’d heard that story from Lady Sybil, but had promised never to tell Charles that she knew what a softie he was.
Charles smiled as he gently caressed Elsie’s fingers. “You’re safe, Elsie. It’s just you and your grumpy butler. Well, not butler anymore, just friend. No one will ever hurt you again. I promise.” Seeing her eyes flutter and look at him, he clasped her hand a bit tighter. “I promise, Elsie. No one.” He watched her eyes close again, felt her hand go limp in his and sighed hoping that she would soon be coherent enough to remember his reassurances that she was safe.